Tag Archives: anxiety

Back to therapy I go

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(Trigger warning- reference to themes of violence and sexual assault. Please take care)

I did not think I would see another therapist after DS (Deep Soul). Before he closed his practice, I even shared these sentiments with him. While the process was beneficial, and led to change in many areas, I guess I was not in the right head and heart space to do it again. The ending was painful and a tiny bit traumatic because I felt I hadn’t resolved everything I had wanted to.

Life had other plans and I found myself in the market for a therapist. My job ended up being the gateway. The past six months saw me handling an intense and increased workload of women and children who had fallen victim to some of the worst possible acts mankind could think of. I was dealing with intimate details of how vulnerable individuals were preyed upon, beaten, raped in various ways, maimed and killed. In some instances, I had to see photos of their bodies. In one instance, watch a graphic video of a teen girl. All around me were grieving relatives and perpetrators, some who had initially been regarded as protectors. Chaos once again surfaced in my inner world. It was becoming even harder to find the energy to get out of bed every day. At times, I felt numb inside. Other times floating anxiety covered me like a heavy, damp blanket. Hypervigilance. Racing thoughts. All the time, questions. “How must have they felt?” “What is wrong with this world?” “How would I feel if that happened to me? “What if that happens to me or someone I love?”. Progressing to “What will I do WHEN this happens to me or my loved ones?” When my husband said goodbye every morning, I would take note of what he was wearing so I could give police as much detail as possible to help them identify his body at a crime or accident scene. I was looking over my shoulder the whole time. I felt adrift.

Whatever safety I felt in my relationships and environment seemed to diminish in the face of an unseen, scary enemy. Different days brought up a mix of emotions. Most often, it was deep sadness, fear and a sense of loss. A supervisor at work suggested I contact our employee assistance programme to speak to someone. A kind woman set me up with a private psychologist not far from our new home, work and where DS used to practice. I will call him HH (Heart Healer).

I think it is inevitable that you will end up comparing therapists. It also becomes clear that each one offers something different. HH didn’t have a website I could browse through to learn more about his experience and approach. I was going in blind. As I parked my car outside his practice, I noticed that both therapy settings were cottage-like and had wrought iron fencing with a little garden. I punched in a code and the wooden door swung open. I was greeted by a long, narrow corridor with numerous doors. The wooden floor squeaked as I walked along the runner carpet. At the end was a waiting room. Light piano music filled the space. The comforting aroma of coffee wafted from a machine on the counter. A bookshelf offered family magazines and psychology journals. I grabbed a journal and sat on a squishy couch, feeling nervous and curious to see how this would pan out. When I used to wait for DS, I hardly ever bumped into other people visiting their therapists. Here however, new arrivals filed in every few minutes until eventually, I felt like I was in an airport departures lounge. It made me uneasy. Everyone kept to themselves. The clock struck 11am and therapists streamed in to pick up their clients until it was just me and another woman left. I counted the minutes anxiously. Was he still busy with another client? Was it really a good idea to see someone new? Five minutes later, an older man with silver hair poked his head around the corner and said his name to us. I replied with mine and followed him back down the corridor to a door on the right. His office was completely different to DS’s. Gone was the stylish but comfortable fittings with cool tones, the bookshelf with all his textbooks and the puffy couch which could comfortably sit three. Instead, HH’s space had sunny walls with generic pastel paintings you might find in a chain hotel. Half of the space was taken up by toys and items for play therapy. He walked past the room divider and offered me the double seater or a chair. I sat in the squeaky wicker double seater. It was surprisingly comfy. To the left was a big window I could look out of. Above the flowering bougainvillea, I noticed curtains rustling at the neighbour’s window. HH bumbled about, apologising for not being able to give me a declaration form because his printer was giving trouble. He sat down in front of me and we both had a chance to assess each other. He was older than DS. He used a pen and paper, not a tablet. He was both serious and awkward. But I remembered the kindness in his voice message, while we were still setting up an appointment, and figured he was a man of many layers.

We spoke about what had brought me to his office. I was surprised by how quickly I started choking up and crying. Had I really been bottling things up? I tried to be patient with myself and breathed in between so I could explain everything. “Where were his darn tissues?” I thought as I looked around. He came over and fished a box out from under a table. I explained that while every person had their ups and downs, it felt as though I had lost optimism and excitement about the future. I told him about DS and made it clear that I knew therapists were not magicians. I was realistic about having to put in the work and not having answers fall out the sky.

At first, I sensed he was bored because he crossed his arms and seemed disinterested in making eye contact. It made me wary. When he said those symptoms would fit under depression, I felt it was too quick to be diagnosing before understanding me as a person. I didn’t think I was depressed. Slowly I sensed a shift through the session and felt he had at least a basic understanding and interest in working with me to figure out what was going on. He recommended that the next session be used to get a background on my life and formative influences, my relationships with loved ones and what was happening in my life on a daily basis.

As we got up, he squeezed himself between the door and room divider so I could walk past. He seemed nervous. I walked out, hoping I would be able to move forward in the same way I was putting one foot in front of the other.

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Longing, loss and looking forward

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Last night I dreamt of seeing a new therapist. My mind may have been playing tricks… He felt like my old therapist in different form. It’s been five months since DS closed his practice and left the country. He’s popped into my nightly adventures at times since then.

In my dream, I felt hopeful as I knocked on the door of the new guy. The building was in town and he consulted on the third floor. He had the same initials as DS but had a bit more of an exotic aura. I remember chuckling at this. We sat for a session but I could not recall what he looked like or what we discussed.

Mostly I felt hope. It popped into my head that I had found finally someone to be present at my side again as I worked through feelings of despair and anxiety.

Loss revisited 

And then the oh-so-common theme of abandonment reared its head. I pitched for a session at 6pm and there was another therapist and client in his room. They asked me to wait out on the street. I decided to phone the new therapist and see what was going on. Out on the pavement, I scrolled through my phone looking for his number. Maybe I had forgotten to book a session?! Hearing his soothing voice was all I wanted to hear in that moment. There I stood, looking for him but not finding his contact in my address book. I became more panicky. “Had I imagined it all?” The pain of losing a therapist surfaced sharply. Eventually I left. Upon waking I felt the same loss as when we said goodbye.

The dream, I think, is just part of the natural cycle of processing and grieving. For the most part, I have been strong. I just really miss DS as a person. How he’s doing often enters my mind.

Feeling

I imagine him bundled up against the cold with his dog and a petite, dark-haired woman at his side. They walk hand-in-hand through frosty fields. Their pooch runs after something in the grass and they laugh.

At our last session, he promised to send me his contact details once he had set up his new practice. I was a bit disappointed that he never did. He probably thought I could get it off his new website and that emailing wouldn’t make sense.

May we both be in a good space.

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Ending each therapy session

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I had an interesting experience in therapy with DS (Deep Soul) on Monday. Our time was drawing to a close and I had discussed for the first time how anxious I feel around other people and how fearful I am of the anxiety’s effect on my relationships. As usual, he asked how I was feeling as we were wrapping up.

Most often, there’s just a deep sadness that time has gone by so quickly and that I will have to wait another week to feel his presence. I feel ashamed for feeling sad when he has been so kind. It’s like I am ungrateful and greedy. As a result, I find myself withdrawing the closer it comes to saying goodbye. It’s not entirely of my will. I just feel myself distancing, becoming really formal and speaking monotonously and without affect. This is most likely something I use to protect myself from feeling the pain at departing. DS raised his observations about my departures a while back and I have been trying to remain more present as a result.

So when he asked how I was feeling last time, I opened up about my sadness and tried to remain with him emotionally in the room. It was hard fighting against habit. I told him it was difficult. As I type this now, I think the difficulty is that I have to feel whatever is real for me in that moment instead of being numb. Feeling touched that he was being empathetic as we sat there, I said:

“It’s difficult but I am willing to do this [try be more present] for those I care about.”

Scared at the silence and that he might interpret the words as me coming on too strong, I added: “like you, my husband and perhaps a few of my closest friends”.

My intention with those words was to show him that I appreciate him sticking around and that I am ready to do the work I need to in order to strengthen my emotional regulation and intimacy skills.

Instead, he said it felt like I needed to reassure him or give up my own feelings and needs to maintain the relationship. I said he was reading too much into it. Oh boy, did I feel a need to distance myself from the rising rejection in my body then! “It feels like I am rejecting you?” he enquired gently. I said it sure did but that I understood what he was trying to say. He added that there was obviously a lot going on with me trying to stay present and he was curious to know what that experience was like for me. He didn’t want me to cut off certain feelings or leave things unsaid.

“I understand,” I said in a soft, somewhat monotous voice. “You’re trying to look out for my needs as a client.”

“As a person,” he replied.

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** “Friendship” by Pablo Picasso. 1908.

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The “perfect” therapy client

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Sitting on the therapy couch activates intense anxiety and I always feel like I am display, on show. For a naturally guarded and private person, it makes sense that speaking about myself would seem scary and revealing. For that hour, my muscles stiffen. I am hyper-aware of how I am being perceived. Extended silences make me even more anxious. Although the silence is intended to act as a loving holding space, it feels reproachful.

I specialise in past tense, present tense and future tense…

This tension in the therapy room is something I have often explored with DS (my therapist Deep Soul). Perhaps it’s because therapy is a place where you cannot hide. You can try to pretend with words but your body language will deceive you. It’s a space where shame is under the full glare of the therapist’s gaze. It’s a place where, try as you might, your less desirable side will be exposed and scrutinised, albeit with kind intention.

These feelings have very little to do with DS and everything to do with what I am bringing to the room. In one session, we discussed how important it was for me to be the “perfect” therapy client. Maybe you’d find some of this familiar…

– You’re super accommodating when your therapist announces last-minute changes.

– You always make sure you are early or on time for appointments.

– You ensure you look and smell good, even if you’ve just come from a work day where you were stuck in a cubicle of sweating Jabba the Hutts and dealt with people who make teeth-gnashing Rottweilers look more approachable.

– You politely greet your therapist and ask how they are.

– You listen carefully to each and every insight because it’s what you “should” do, even when you really don’t feel up to it in the moment.

– You dig a hole to China trying to explore “how you are feeling” because you think an answer will satisfy them.

– You consider the burden and impact your words and actions will have on your therapist and the relationship.

– Even if your therapist is not the homework kind (like DS), you avidly Google topics discussed in the session, make mental notes and basically create your own detailed homework schedule.

– You don’t leave all your crumpled tissues on the couch. You place them in the bin before you leave.

– You make sure you pay your therapist beforehand, like clockwork and without fail.

Trying to be perfectly imperfect…

What may become clear is that not all of these behaviours are particularly helpful to the client. Theoretically, part of the therapist’s job is to give up their needs and life for you in the paid hour. I say theoretically because it’s easier said than done. The hour becomes a space in the day where you can let the mask slip. Trying to cut out these tendencies can also be potentially unhelpful. I told DS one day that I “shouldn’t” be so hard on myself and expect to be perfect at all times. Basically, I was again trying to be the perfect therapy client by trying to force myself to be fixed, simply by stipulating what I could and couldn’t do. So many rules!

It’s easy to say that self-compassion is what is needed in this somewhat confusing healing process. I personally think that’s a harder tool to grab if you struggle with low self-esteem. Someone who thinks they are a piece of crap may not feel they deserve to cut themselves a break. This is probably where your therapist’s unending empathy becomes an important catalyst for change.

Do you stock Therapy Client Barbie?

Obviously, there are very blissful times when their attunement is so intense that it uncoils the springs in our bodies and we exhale in relief. The distance between the couch and the therapist’s chair is greatly reduced when DS tunes in like a curious detective fiddling with the dial of a radio, trying to cut through the fuzziness until he’s found a crystal-clear channel. It’s like time stops. We revel in this comforting moment together and our heartstrings pluck in perfect harmony.

So, as you can see, feeling safe and trusting enough to “not be perfect” is one of my own therapy challenges. One day it will eventually be okay to not be perfect in therapy. And hopefully, that will extend to life. Until then, feel free to share “perfect client” moments so we can cut through any ¬†unnecessary shame.

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